Newtown, Connecticut. Just saying the name of the place conveys enough horror that it almost feels as if nothing more can be said, except that if we don’t say anything more, the shock and the horror feel as if they’ll never abate. Some of those poor innocents have already been lowered into the wintery New England soil for the longest of naps, but in our minds they’re still lying in that classroom amidst a scene so sick it kills a part of us each time we consider it. So there has to be more that we can say, and we fumble for words while trying not to feel as helpless as children ourselves in our struggle to believe that we can master this evil or at least move past it if only we say the right thing. But the words don’t come and the evil keeps winning.
The bible tells us that humans are made in the image of God. We aren’t told what that means, just that it’s true, and theology’s efforts to understand it have covered thousands of years. There are several schools of thought, but the two I always found most persuasive argue that we image God in our capabilities and our in our relationships. With respect to our capabilities, the idea is that squirrels do not give to charity, dogs do not complete logic puzzles, orangutans do not cure polio, and lobsters do not win Olympic medals. Which isn’t to say that these tasks are essential to imaging God, but that the abilities making each possible – intellect, reason, imagination, and determination for example – are restricted to us and to God. Humans have potential, basically, to do or be anything, and in this potential we image God.
The idea that we image God in relationships is similar. God exists in a trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As such, God exists in relationship at all times, and he made us to exist in relationship too. Not only did God give us the ability to have relationships; he also gave us the need for them. We’re born into families, form friendships, get married, and – assuming we start our own families along the way – nag our children when we want grandchildren. We crave companionship, and the thought of a truly solitary life is abhorrent. In this, we also bear God’s image.
One way to describe the actions of the Newtown monster is to say he ran amok. That phrase may seem like an understatement that diminishes the unredeemable malice he brought to that school, but the phrase run amok has a unique history; it’s adapted from a Malay word used to describe a very specific phenomenon: a tribesman snapping and indiscriminately murdering or maiming random bystanders. In the words of Dr. Manuel Saint Martin,
Amok attacks involved an average of 10 victims and ended when the individual was subdued or “put down” by his fellow tribesmen, and frequently killed in the process. According to Malay mythology, running amok was an involuntary behavior caused by the “hantu belian,” or evil tiger spirit entering a person’s body and compelling him or her to behave violently without conscious awareness. Because of their spiritual beliefs, those in the Malay culture tolerated running amok despite its devastating effects on the tribe.
Mass killings have a much longer history than many in the United States realize; while we have much more efficient weapons than Malay tribesmen and thus mass killing here can be far more deadly, the nature of the killings is fundamentally similar: a person decides to slaughter innocents and to die while doing so. Dr. Saint Martin, in fact, has argued that the diagnosis of amok – an actual psychiatric condition listed in the DSM-4, the handbook by which psychiatrists make their diagnoses – should be applied in every culture. The most infamous examples happen to be in the United States of late, but it’s not a specifically American – or Malaysian – problem.
If we image God in our potential, consider who has more potential than a child? Everything’s still on the table for them; 5 years of med school mean the chance to be a soccer phenom has passed, but for a child of 6, both are still options. Which isn’t to say that children have more of the image of God, but they do have more potential, which gives the image of God more clarity in the young.
As for relationships, it stands to reason that some relationships reflect God more than others. Man and wife are different than man and mistress; mother and daughter are different than supervisor and employee. What relationships are more pure than those of a child? What six-year-old has true enemies, or is capable of devious interpersonal manipulation? Who needs relationships more than a child? The bible says we are all created in the image of God, but with respect to relationships, it can be argued that the least guileful image him most clearly. Just like with potential. Just like with kids.
In seminary I had a class from a wise man named Grant Osborne, and among the most memorable things he said was that the operational objective of demon possession is the destruction of the image of God.
Look, I don’t want to become ‘that writer obsessed with demons.’ But did you catch that bit up above about the Malays attributing mass killings – running amok, remember – to a demonic force? What if the Malays were correct? What if running amok is caused by a demon? The fact that it is a diagnosable psychiatric condition doesn’t necessarily rule this out; a quick read of the article linked above will show that clinicians don’t seem to know what to make of amok. Maybe Malays from an earlier time knew something our scientists don’t.
Is there any conceivable way one could do more damage to the image of God than this Connecticut murderer? Surely his actions were inhuman; I might argue that his image of God was gone. And what could strike with more force at the image of God in others than to attack such young children? Not only did this prematurely rob us of the opportunity to observe God’s image in those 20 kids, think about the shattered potential and relational capabilities of those left behind by the children. If demons act to subvert and destroy the image of God, how could it be achieved more effectively than we see in Newtown?
I don’t know if the Newtown murderer was demon possessed, I don’t know if the Aurora theater shooter was, and I don’t know if that kid at Virginia Tech was. But when I read that anthropology finds traditions of such killings predating written history in some corners of the globe, and when I hear those same traditions attribute such disregard for human life to forces of spiritual evil, I’m inclined to listen. Unrestrained evil devoid of mitigating sentiments doesn’t exist in science. It exists in theology, and it’s only with theology’s help that I can understand anything about what happened in Newtown.
There are dark forces at work in the world, and last week, they acted out in Connecticut. But please remember what I wrote last week: I’ve seen those same dark forces defeated. I also, for what it’s worth, noticed that Adrian Peterson’s miracle knee ran for 212 yards on Sunday. Acknowledge the darkness, but don’t forget to notice the light. After all, we were made in its image.